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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Few Railcars Carrying Flammable Oil Get Inspected

oil train, transportation
Flickr Photo/Russ Allison Loar (CC BY NC ND 2.0)/

As we researched a recent story about train shipments of oil, we asked Washington and Oregon officials: How many of the trains coming through the Northwest are inspected?

In Washington, inspectors with the Utilities and Transportation Commission see only a small percentage of trains that move through. The commission shared its inspection reports and found that violations are rare.

“Our focus is really limited,” rail safety manager Kathy Hunter said. “There’s been a lot of deregulation over the years in the railroad industry, so our primary focus is around crossings.”

John Johnson, rail safety manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation, estimates that his inspectors see roughly 1 percent of all trains that move through the state, regardless of what they’re carrying.

For trains carrying hazardous material — crude oil, for instance — they make an effort to inspect more. Johnson said they might reach somewhere up to 10 percent of those trains, but he stressed that was an estimate, not a hard number.

Read: Northwest Officials Receive Little Information On Oil-By-Rail Shipments

“We have upped our inspections and so the inspectors do look at more of the coal and oil trains than we used to when they were just kind of a general occurrence that happened occasionally,” Johnson said. “Since they’ve upped their number of trains through Oregon, we do do more inspections on those trains.”

Johnson shared a breakdown of what his inspectors found last year:

•  Total trains inspected: 21,294

•  Out of compliance: 954

•  Rate of noncompliance: .04

According to Johnson, non-complying conditions include “anything from improperly filling out a repair record, failure to document a railroad inspection, a safety appliance being bent, to a defect in the brake or suspension system of a car or locomotive.

Problems found on tracks include “anything from a loose bolt, recording keeping defects, vegetation overgrowth, fouled ballast sub-grade causing ride quality issues, to a broken rail.”

These inspections are in addition to oversight by the Federal Railroad Administration. Railroads, spanning multiple states, fall under federal jurisdiction. State agencies can perform inspections to make sure cars and tracks are in compliance, but no one at the state level can determine what exactly is compliance.

In terms of ensuring the safety of oil by rail, the potential for danger seems to be more tied to what acceptable standards are rather than whether railroads meet those standards. For instance, the most common tanker car, the DOT-111 (often described as a “black soda can on wheels”), has been proven in studies to be flawed and easily punctured, and yet still meets federal standards.

That’s why safety advocates, legislators and even industry groups have called for a closer look at safety regulations, to make sure they keep up with the rapid increase in shipments.

Then, when local inspectors see a car on the rails that federal investigators knew was flawed 20 years ago, they’ll be able to do something about it. Right now, they can’t.